How Horizon Zero Dawn Creates A Rich World

 The following post contains spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn

Developer: Guerrilla Games

Genre: Action, RPG

Release Date: February 28, 2017

Platforms: PlayStation 4

Writer: John Gonzalez and Ben McCaw

Biography: Horizon Zero Dawn follows Aloy as she begins to uncover the mystery of her origins, the rampaging machines that are beginning to become hostile and what exactly happened to the ‘Old ones’.

With Horizon Zero Dawn, Guerrilla Games moved away from its traditional releases of  the Killzone series into an entirely different genre. The world of Horizon is colourful, vibrant and enjoyable to explore but most impressively features an endearing protagonist and excels with a story that is part mystery, part sci-fi. What is most impressive about the RPG is how interactions between characters, intelligently designed robotic creatures and a sense of history layer together to create a rich world that you want to explore and gives you a story that is not only meaningful for the protagonist Aloy but for the world itself.

The game is a post-apocalyptic one, much of the plot centres around what happened to the ‘Old ones’ or humanity as we know it today – our own extinction has always been a point of fascination in fiction and indeed in current news so Horizon Zero Dawn’s story also has the benefit of feeling timely. Aloy eventually learns that the reason for humanity’s near-extinction was Faro Automated Solutions, a manufacturer of military robotic peacekeepers which ran on biomass and eventually turned on humanity for fuel and sustenance. It’s a very dark series of events and you get a sense of the sheer horror as the self-replicating robots overrun humanity’s defences via Datapoints – written and oral testimonies of our species’ final days.

Horizon Zero Dawn

Despite this very bleak future, the world Aloy and the various tribes inhabit is not grey and covered in ash like the Fallout series but lush, vibrant and varied like a fantasy game. Aloy hunts animals through breezy forests, climbs treacherous mountain passes and moves through a sun-baked plateau where Meridian is located. The world is distinctly recognisable even if there is some minor and major differences. Some machines like Grazers will scatter at the sight of Aloy while others like the Thunderjaw are best avoided until you are well-equipped. There’s a meta story in the gameplay here as in most games, taking down tougher machines feels immensely satisfying and once you’ve mastered Horizon’s tools like the bow or the tripcaster they can be used in creative ways.

Exploring in the game is also rewarding – not only to find quests but uncover little pieces of history in the landscape. Aloy will occasionally comment on the things around her which look like ancient buildings and machines to her and the various tribes but to us are instantly recognisable such as rusted wind turbines, the shell of a high-rise building or a statue. This sense of time and history adds weight to the story and immediately draws you into the various mysteries Aloy is trying to solve in Horizon Zero Dawn. On top of this though are enormous mechanic shells which lay dormant such as the one above All-Mother, which despite being created by humanity look menacing, eerie and almost alien. They seem to have more in common with the Reapers from Mass Effect than the increasingly aggressive animalistic machines Aloy encounters on her journey.

Horizon Zero Dawn
Some of Horizon Zero Dawn’s scenery is quite eerie

Aloy makes for a compelling protagonist and is the player’s conduit for the length of the game. You are discovering the world at the same time she is while learning about her background and the Nora tribe in the early hours of the game. Capably voice acted by Ashly Burch (Life is Strange) she’s strong, confident yet a consistent underdog in the story. Like many games in this genre she starts off criticised by her peers in the Nora tribe and is thrown lots of obstacles during the Proving but manages to overcomes these and over the course of the story earn the respect of the Nora tribe in addition to the various communities featured in the world. She has a curious disposition evident from the opening moments of the game where she finds her Focus and challenges tradition and convention by venturing beyond the Embrace into the outer world.

Throughout Horizon Zero Dawn Aloy can make dialogue choices to steer the conversation and let the player shape Aloy to some extent. It’s a testament to the writers however that Aloy is so well defined that whichever choices you pick feel authentically like her whether you react angrily to another character or compassionately. These conversations are also a key way to learn about the world, its tribes and their culture which are very defined. Important side characters like Erend are all affected by Aloy being in their lives but have their own motives and desires. Erend feels the weight of responsibility after his sister is killed to lead the Sun-King’s Vanguard and protect the Carja. Sylens is an enigmatic ally who you aren’t sure whether to trust or not meanwhile the characters at the heart of the older, Faro plot like Elisabeth and Ted are just as compelling to listen to via video and audio logs.

Horizon Zero Dawn
The mystery of GAIA and what went wrong with Project Zero Dawn is one of the most compelling parts of the story

The story has tons of depth and many layers – there’s the revenge story as Aloy hunts Rosts’s killer, the mystery of Aloy’s origins, the mystery of what happened to the ‘Old ones’ and ultimately the most important, what happened with GAIA and Project Zero Dawn. It’s incredible that these various plot threads merge together so well but they do and it’s a substantial period of character growth for Aloy. The interaction between the new world or the tribes and the technology and world controlled by GAIA is extremely well thought through and really interesting to think about so much so that it doesn’t feel like one playthrough of the game is enough to absorb everything that is going on in this game. This is a game of small details too: Aloy can revisit Rost’s grave to let out some of her feelings throughout the game, machines move gracefully and you can find incredible detail here plus little touches that allude to the nature of the world – for example Aloy sounds a lot like alloy, a mixture of two elements alluding to Aloy’s origins.

Horizon Zero Dawn is an ambitious game that reaches incredible heights. Not only does it present a compelling RPG with a strong character arc for Aloy but also presents an extensive mystery that comes to a satisfying conclusion. Uncovering what happened to humanity and how interference prevented the regeneration process of the world was intriguing and entertaining. The world that Guerrilla Games have introduced is clearly detailed and dense enough for a sequel and the intriguing post-credits sequence with Sylens gives a hint of what’s to come. The story is one that deserves replaying to catch all the details you might have missed the first time around and it’s exciting to think about where Aloy’s story could go next.

What did you think of Aloy’s journey in Horizon Zero Dawn? Did you find the mystery of Project Zero Dawn as fascinating as I did?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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